Mary Jane

Going to extremes to drive home a message about respect, open-mindedness, and discovering who you want to be (North Baltimore, 1975): Bursting-in-song is one way to describe this enormously entertaining historical novel.

Set in 1975, a notable year for rock n’ roll music, the year John Lennon’s Rock N’ Roll album was released, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, along with George Harrison, Patti Smith, Eric Clapton, Queen. An eclectic, inclusive year too as Love Will Keep Us Together (Captain and Tenillle), Rhinestone Cowboy (Glen Campbell), Laughter in the Rain (Neil Sedaka), and James Taylor’s How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You) also came out. Music, inclusiveness, broad-mindedness are Mary Jane themes.

Jessica Anya Blau curated a playlist of the thirty-three songs in her fifth sing-its-praises novel. To give you a sense of the awakening of the novel’s main character, Mary Jane, and the uplifting feelings the reader experiences, you might want to listen to the first song on the list: Morning Has Broken, sung by Cat Stevens. The lyrics, accompanied by the beautiful Nature images in this video, match fourteen-year-old Mary Jane’s feel-good transformation during one life-changing summer:

Mary Jane Dillard’s coming-of-age story gives us an intimate look inside two very different families: Mary Jane’s very conservative, play-by-the-rules, narrow-minded, middle-class family in which the only rule is to be “obedient” and “respectable” versus the new Cone family she becomes part of when she accepts a summer job as a nanny for a precocious, precious, curly red-headed five-year-old girl, Izzy, whose family is very liberal, broad-minded, hippy-ish, and doesn’t follow conventional rules. The furthest thing from respectable if the Dillards only knew.

This multifaceted novel is fun to read. Entertaining us through music and love, humor and outrageousness, it also conveys serious messages about respect and belongingness, benevolence, tolerance, and prejudices.

The title has multiple meanings too. Foremost is the protagonist who awakens to how lonely she was in her unaffectionate family until she met the Cones. Her mother is “stiff” as an “ironing board”; her lawyer father barely aware of her. An ultra-conservative, conventional family and an off-the-charts, free-spirited one couldn’t be more extreme. Which is the point.

The two families live on the same street in the same Roland Park suburb her mother says is the “finest neighborhood in Baltimore” gives that impression from the outside, designed by the Olmstead Brothers of Central Park fame. Dig deeper and you’ll learn that this planned community was designed for whites only. Blau doesn’t have to tell us that, she shows us what “segregated politeness” looks like and then the chilling descent. Blau used to live and teach creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which explains why we feel she’s imagined this place fifty years ago authentically. From California, a Berkley grad, thus her familiarity with hippydom.

On Day 1 when sheltered Mary Jane enters Dr. and Mrs. Cone’s house to meet Izzy, her first reaction was: “Do people live like this?” Remarkably cluttered and dysfunctional unlike her orderly, regulated house, she empathizes with a little girl being brought up in this atmosphere, “a world that was different than mine,” but she doesn’t show it. Nor tell her in-command homemaker mother who loves choir music, Broadway show tunes, and plays the guitar (music their connection), immediately picking up on Izzy’s need for stability and basic nurturing like home-cooked meals Mrs. Cone seems incapable of preparing. When she shows Mary Jane Izzy’s bedroom decorated with Impeachment stickers, we’re reminded 1975 was also the year Gerard Ford was sworn in as the 38th President after Nixon’s resignation. How utterly relevant fifty years later.

Little girl stuff is here too: nostalgic toys like Etch-A-Sketch, an Erector Set, a Snoopy poster, and stacks of coloring books. Coloring is the first activity Izzy wants to do with Mary Jane. Fine idea except the coloring book she chooses is the Human Body Coloring Book for Kids and they’re in the kitchen with Izzy’s parents! Dr. Richard Cone, a psychiatrist with “goaty sideburns,” clearly adores Izzy, but the drawings are graphic and embarrassing for an adolescent girl who’s never even kissed a boy. Grinning and bearing it, Mary Jane puts her charge’s needs above her own. Which is why Mary Jane is such a winning protagonist.

A week later the Cones’ house is “shimmering and gyrating.” Dr. Cone explains to Mary Jane “doctor-patient confidentiality” trusting her not to say a word about his famous client, Jimmy, or his famous wife, Sheba, coming to live with them so Jimmy can finally overcome his addiction. Who are Jimmy and Sheba? He’s a rock n’ roll star and she’s a long-time actress Mary Jane knows from TV. Sheba (and Mrs. Cone) dress promiscuously, and Jimmy’s shirt is always open. Who’s Mary Jane? A sweet, innocent girl who wears saddle shoes and oxfords at a private all-girls school. Hmmm.

As Dr. Cone occupies himself with Jimmy’s care and Mrs. Cone and Sheba become girlfriends, soon Izzy is calling Mary Jane and herself “snuglets,” feeling safer from a Witch. Who or what is the Witch? What we interpret is the witch is Izzy’s way of expressing her anxiety about something.

To help Jimmy withdraw from the high of drugs he consumes quantities of sweets and junk food. Do you remember the old-fashioned candy Mary Janes, still around after a century? The title could also refer to that.

Dr. Cone is ahead of his time medically approving the use of marijuana to calm Jimmy’s uncontrollable “whirly-twirly-creative-genius brain,” revealing another meaning of the title. Did you know Mary Jane stands for marijuana? That the song Mary Jane, sung by a rock artist in the late seventies, wasn’t a love ballad to a woman but to marijuana?

Between Jimmy’s “cello sounding voice,” Sheba’s voice like “notes landing on my skin like feathers,” and Mary Jane’s “gorgeous” (news to her) harmonizing voice, this unconventional group becomes “an unbreakable chain of love” – although we know chains can break. Sheba loves and accepts Jimmy, isn’t afraid to show her affections, while he’s a roller coaster of emotions and an apologetic abuser of inappropriate language and behavior. Above it all, Mary Jane feels “the thrill and intimacy of being in on things with adults.”

A page-turning set-up, but the only way the reader can appreciate its deeper meaning is to follow Mary Jane: push aside prudishness, squeamishness because that’s what Blau is asking us to do. Then you’ll see how important valuing a young adult’s “thoughts and feelings and abilities” – treating them as a “real person” – can be.

Spontaneity is ever-present. Love and Music make the novel sparkle, and dreamily could make the world go round. Ignore the Cones’ alternative lifestyle as nothing compares to the ugly prejudices of Mary Jane’s parents, newly discovered thanks to the Cones and a charismatic couple trying to find themselves in a bewildering world.

“Being a doctor makes up for being a Jew,” Mrs. Dillard says. (She doesn’t know he’s not a traditional doctor.) “What do they have to make up for?” Mary Jane asks. To which her father says Jews are “a different type of person.” He goes on to say Jewish people are “another breed of human. We’re poodles. They’re mutts”! To which Mary Jane replies to her religious family: “So Jesus was a mutt?” Mary Jane is aghast at her parents’ attitudes having studied the Holocaust, painfully realizing that “sometimes the people who kept those ideas alive were the people you lived with.”

So, which family is a Good or Bad influence?


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Transient Desires: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

Why we’re addicted to a Venetian detective (Italy, contemporary times): Can you read the 30th book in a mystery series as a standalone?

As a new reader of Donna Leon’s long-running detective series, reading her newest, Transient Desires, the answer is a resounding YES. It’s exceedingly entertaining, atmospheric, and thoughtful all by itself, along with calming prose fitting the good-natured, gentlemanly protagonist, Guido Brunetti, Commissario or Superintendent of Venice’s civilian police force headquartered at the Questura. (You’ll also discover why legions of fans keep returning to Brunetti, year after year.)

To be sure, I went back 15 years to read Through a Glass, Darkly, then another 15 to Brunetti’s debut, Death at La Fenice. Donna Leon, an American from New Jersey, lived in Venice for thirty years. (She now lives in Switzerland.) Considering her novels have been translated into 34 languages, it’s not surprising that an entire industry has sprung up inspired by them. You too will want to join a Venetian tour of all the places Brunetti visits, carrying a copy of Brunetti’s Venice: Walks with the City’s Best-Loved Detective. If you’re a cook, you might also savor Brunetti’s Cookbook, since Brunetti’s wife Paolo, a “radar of love,” is a marvelous cook. (She’s also a professor of English literature at a nearby university, Ca’Foscari.)

Inside the front and back cover of the 30th book is a map of Venice, the islands around it, and points beyond. The only caveat for a new reader unfamiliar with Venice and the series might be a more detailed city map if you want to follow Brunetti more closely along all the narrow streets called “calle,” all the bridges crossing over all the canals, churches and cafés everywhere, to investigate cases. Perhaps a list of commonly used Italian words translated into English would be helpful too, but you can pretty much guess their meanings. 

Brunetti serves as a vehicle for expressing Leon’s love for this magnificent ancient city as they both know Venice intimately. (Brunetti is a history buff.) Through Brunetti, Leon also spotlights their disappointment that even a great city isn’t immune to modern-day woes: bureaucracy, corruption, overcrowding, economic/political/social concerns, and ecological/environmental threats (see Not wanting to offend the Venetian people she also loves, none of her books have been translated into Italian.

Unflattering images of Venice surface in relation to the crimes. Brunetti is politic and subtle so he typically conceals his feelings, though not with Paolo and his two good kids, Raffi, the oldest, and Chiari. They all try to make it a priority to come home for lunch; when Brunetti can’t this otherwise genial man with a strong ethical and moral compass and a heart of gold does get cranky.

Brunetti’s compassion and empathy shines when it comes to the original crime (there are two) in Transient Desires. He doesn’t jump to conclusions, so he goes out of his way to interview as many people he can identify to solve the crime. Smart and savvy, he knows his way around his ornery boss, Vice-Questore Guiseppe Patta, who cares more about his ambitions and reputation that anything else. (Patta’s secretary, Signorina Elletra is his go-to person.)

The author clearly cares and thinks deeply about the messages she wants to convey. Calling herself an Eco-detective, she created Brunetti (and his family) in the same light. Coming from a happy family, she also wanted Brunetti’s family life to be happy. Another reason he stands out pleasurably.

Leon explains that her mysteries standalone because Brunetti (and others) doesn’t age or change much over the years.

Fatherhood, though, must have deepened Brunetti’s empathy for young people as victims, suspects, or persons of interest. The original crime in Transient Desires involves four young people: two young women, the victims, and two young men, the perpetrators. The “profound sadness that youth could be so rash and so vulnerable and so damaged” challenges his generally upbeat demeanor as one of the women is so badly injured (both are in the hospital) his hands tremble. He feels for young people who are “so fragile . . . their self-assurance is a thin layer.” Coupled with a man who “loathed, above all, “bullies,” you can see why he takes a boating accident so seriously even if may be more morally egregious than illegal, thus hard to prove criminally.

Since he cares about the young male friends who’ve gotten in over their heads, one more than the other, it leads to his identifying the second crime, far more sinister. The starting point for both crimes is in an area of Venice set away from the major tourist center. Brunetti refers to it as the “horror of the Marguera,” the location of Venice’s industrial complex. For the reader and tourist, it may come as a shock that industries are still dumping toxic waste into the waters, invisible in the stunning blue lagoon embracing the city. A murder in Book #15 is based on that toxicity, whereas in Book #30 the second crime flows out of the Marguera to twelves miles off the coast of Venice, into international waters Brunetti isn’t in charge of, so even harder to prove. Brunetti shows us how experienced, strategic, and careful to wheedle himself among multiple entities to help solve what’s been happening in the dark of night.

There are many other reasons to love and respect Brunetti.

Brunetti also cares about the “voice of the people.” To “their concerns, their preferences, their crimes.” To the daily life of a gossipy city, which is why he doesn’t just read the main local paper, Il Gazettino, but also La Repubblica he calls “Vox pop.” (He and Paolo read widely, another treat.) This makes sense since Brunetti comes from working-class roots contrasted to Paolo’s parents who are aristocrats, a Count and a Countess. His relationship with his in-laws is the only hint of discomfort involving his beloved Paolo.

Brunetti is an astute observer of people’s behaviors. He picks up on and loathes prejudices that are “sucking down all hope of friendship, all hope of love, all hope of common humanity.” In a memorable scene involving his own prejudice towards southern Italians, he’s painfully honest with himself, asking: “Do people from the South appear more cultured and intelligent when they adapted to Northern standards?” Mortified that the person who’s also astute picked up on his prejudice is his trusted colleague, Commissario Claudio Griffoni, from Naples. In book #1, we learn he spent five years in the Naples police before coming to Venice, but apparently up until now he’s concealed his true feelings.

Consistent with Brunetti’s investigative style and persona is delightful prose that’s easy-flowing and rhythmic, out-of-sync with fast-moving, edge-of-your-seat thrillers. The thrill is gentler and moves more slowly, a wonderful testament that not every bestseller must use words that shock and come at a furious pace.

German television has produced twenty Brunetti episodes with subtitles. Why hasn’t American TV produced an English-language version? Surely, it could be as addictive as Brunetti’s books.


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I Thought You Said This Would Work

Rescuing yourself when you drop everything to rescue your best friend and her therapy dog (Wisconsin, California, Utah; present-day): Ann Garvin opens her new, sparkling contemporary novel with a Finnish proverb that asks us to consider whether “Happiness is a place between too much and too little”? 

For a writer with an infectious smile, you’ll find that how Garvin describes herself and her novels (see also 1, 2, 3) rings authentically true in I Thought You Said This Would Work:

“I’m Ann and I think everything is funny and a little bit sad. I write about women, with a good sense of humor, who do too much in a world that asks too much from them. I write about you and me.”

Her three female characters – Katie, Samantha, and Holly – evoke emotions like her Feel-Better Blog, Come Sit By Me. Katie is the “glue” that brings Sam and Holly back together twenty-five years after the once tight threesome, college roommates, graduated. The two ex-friends remain best friends with Katie. Sam, our narrator, says Katie is “the warmest of all,” self-deprecating as she’s the one who carries “enough tissues to wipe up a nuclear spill.” For some unknown reason, Holly disowned her, which becomes clear towards the ending.

The two ex-best friends will do anything for Katie back in the hospital as her ovarian cancer has returned. Sam has a “dish tantrum” when Katie breaks the news to her in the opening chapter. Racing to Katie’s bedside, she feels jealous when she gets there after Holly, as if she’s second best. Suffering from “chronic niceness” – a “Try Hard” person – and someone whose conflict adverse, she can’t afford to get overstressed because she also suffers from a “weird” sleeping disorder that causes her to suddenly drop into a “hypersomnia-reset-nap” to refresh, followed by caffeination. Holly used to be fun, but now this lawyer thrives on being bossy. The last thing Sam needs is her unexplainable antagonism and “negativity.” Garvin knows how women tick.

Sam’s an occupational therapist, comfortable in medical situations. She’s also a “Try Hard” person with animals who understands how a dog can be a therapeutic companion. Garvin’s thirty-years as a registered nurse and experience teaching wellness classes at the University of Wisconsin – where the novel is set and where she lives – make their way into this friendship novel, which is so much more than that.

The author also teaches creative writing at Drexel University and taught at other MFA programs, so she also has a way with words that jump off the pages – humorous, whip smart, heart-tugging – to turn a too-little happiness medical story into something approaching too much. Katie is blessed with the unbreakable bonds of two best friends, and possesses the grace and wisdom to appreciate that. She’s the best friend we’d be blessed to have. Someone who epitomizes kindness, a word that pops up often.

Katie has only one request of her two best friends: please bring back her unconditional loving companion. A 100-pound, wagging tail, face-licking dog who’ll save her again. Her needs echo the words of Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, who recently wrote about the surge in dog adoptions during the pandemic of loneliness and despair: “In a time of crisis, when people feel things are uncertain and people feel isolated or scared, to be able to bond with an animal is so important.”

Katie’s animal is a “cancer-sniffing,” lovable Great Pyrenees dog, “a breed that evoked moving a mountain,” ironically named Peanuts, named for Garvin’s cute, little dog. She needs him now, more than ever.

Peanuts was supposed to be non-negotiable during her divorce, but her revengeful, viscerally unlikeable ex-husband Jeff snatched him away when he moved to California with his new wife Misty. The catch is Peanuts isn’t even at their Culver City home but left at an unknown dog shelter likely not to keep a high-maintenance dog with diabetes too long. The other catch is Peanuts is very nervous about cars, so the only one way to transport him is in an old VW bus, also taken.

How can Sam and Holly spend one minute trapped in the same vehicle for 2,300 miles? How can Sam drive alone, which she wants to do, with her sleep issue? How can Holly stand to be with her? She too wants to do this alone, but can’t handle anything medical and is not a dog person. For the sake of their dear friend, they agree to do it together anyway.

Sam is also someone you’d want in your corner. A “solitary helium balloon with no one to hold on to the string,” after eighteen years of being “invisible” single-parenting Maddie after her husband died before she was born, she has a lot to lose headed into Holly’s unrelenting bullying, but she’s selfless. Holly, the only one with a life partner, Rosie, has something to risk too: Rosie is about to become a mother, but feels she must take this one-week journey away from her. When you learn why Holly is the way she is, you may want her in your corner too.

In Garvin’s hands, the iconic bus that symbolized peace and freedom in the sixties counterculture movement still does in the sense that Katie’s peace and Peanuts’ freedom have turned into a “dog-rescue bus.” With charming surprises along the way.

The universe of women this novel will appeal to (some men might benefit from the insight into how women think and feel) includes: women who know what it means, or wish they did, to have a best friend you’d trust with your life, someone you can count on for better or worse, particularly when men have let you down, badly. Women who know the sweetness of happiness and the depths that can fall. Women who find it so hard to stand up for themselves. Friends who make us feel good, others who drain us. Lonely women. “Love that felt like love” is a romantic thread that strings the sad parts together. Dog lovers everywhere. People whose lives depend on, or have been made immeasurably better by an assistive-therapy dog. Men – in this story a doctor and a veterinarian – who’ll charm your heart. All the texters who want instant communication and gratification. Empty-nesters as Maddie is about to graduate and fly her wings. People who come out West and feel the warmth of the glorious sun as if they were “slathered in butter.” Women dealing with acceptance of their sexual preferences.

The list goes on: Everyone who’s had someone dear to them diagnosed with a life-threatening illness who could benefit from a patient’s wisdom: “We live our lives doing stupid things like gossiping when we should be spending all our days planting flowers.”

All of us dreaming of a road trip in this Year of the Road Trip, including those joining the upsurge in camper vanning.

Katie, depicted as a “fresh squirt of friendship Febreze,” offers this spot-on analysis of how it feels to have a special friend or one you’ve split from:

“When girls are friends it was like a beautiful bouquet of funny flowers eternally watered by their togetherness. When the friendship failed, it was an ice storm on a hot-house plant.”

Universally relatable.


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The Titanic Sisters

Hope and Despair aboard the Titanic’s maiden voyage to America (Ireland, New York, Texas; 1911 – 1913): Despite a foreboding plot with fateful twists and turns, Irish-born Patricia Falvey’s fourth historical novel will make you feel good. Because at its heart is discovering the sweetness of love when you haven’t had much, or any.  

Through two fictional Irish sisters, Nora and Delia Sweeney, The Titanic Sisters humanizes the suffering that happened when a supposedly unsinkable, luxurious British ocean liner, the RMS Titanic, hit an iceberg and sank in the Nova Scotia Sea. We know one sister made it to America’s shores; the other listed as one of 1,500 passengers missing.       

Mysteries, secrets, and lies abound, starting with the hook that keeps you turning pages in this briskly moving novel. Which of the Sweeney sisters made it onto a lifeboat and lives to tell her story?   

Like Nora and Delia, Falvey immigrated to America from Northern Ireland. She was twenty, so is Nora; Delia is eighteen. They came from Kilcross, barely a village, in Donegal County. Falvey left home all alone. For all intents and purposes Nora and Delia did too as they were alienated from each other so they barely saw each other on the ship. Nora is her mother’s favorite, Delia the black sheep to no fault of her own. Born a twin, her brother died two minutes after childbirth and her mother blamed her for his death, treating her like a farmhand as her boy would have been. Nora is treated like a princess to the extent a poor farm family can eke out a living on “rocky soil” at the “tip of northwest Ireland.”

The physical appearance and personality of the two sisters matched their mother’s you-can-do-nothing-right emotional abuse of Delia (their submissive father quietly loved her) versus her you-can-do-nothing-wrong adoration of vivacious Nora. With her “hair as dark as turf” and “sure of her place in the world,” leaving “fair-haired and gray-eyed” Delia terribly lonely. She found solace in books that inspired dreams of travel and romance, and when perched on “a group of rocks, bleached white and smooth” gazing out on the pounding, wide-open Atlantic Ocean.      

The novel opens a year before the Titanic set sails when it was being built in Belfast. Life is never the same for the Sweeneys when a “rare” letter addressed to the mother arrives postmarked from America, making it already “important.” The letter informs her that her niece has died, and that her Irish husband, Aidan O’Hanlon, the writer, needs a governess for his only child: seven-year-old, Lily who has not said a word since her mother died. Soon we learn they live in Manhattan, not on the Lower East Side or Hell’s Kitchen where waves of Irish immigrants lived, but on the wealthy streets of the Upper East Side. Both sisters fantasize their mother will choose them, although there’s no way their mother will pick Delia. The letter includes money for a first-class cabin on the elegant ship, but soon Delia gets a break to go onboard too for a lowly job awaiting her. That angers Nora who won’t be able to dine and dance with the upper-class since the one ticket was exchanged for two in third-class berths, highlighting social class differences as well as Nora’s selfishness and total of regard for her sister. Nora and Delia are dreamers, Nora setting her sights on grandeur while Delia yearns to be free from the misery of her mother.

About 80 pages in, you’ll know which sister miraculously survived among the 700 passengers who did, and which sister is missing. Like so much else in the plotting, the telling reveals spoilers. So this review leaves out plenty, aims to give you some flavor and looks at the many themes and emotions depicted, seamlessly and splendidly blending fiction with history.

The author describes the Titanic as both a “Ship of Hope” and a “Ship of Despair.” Which reminded me of a recent article about a different type of catastrophe, environmental, one in which the journalist lost his brother and niece to a California mudslide asking, “Isn’t hope essential?” because “despair is paralyzing.” This is a novel of Hope and Despair. 

The range of those emotions runs the gamut, starting with the terror inside the sinking Titanic. There’s also a poor immigrant’s rootlessness, homesickness, sadness, and survivor’s guilt. Does she end up working someplace she feels comfortable, accepted, and useful? Do caring and loving souls enter into the picture? The novel touches and engages us as it feels authentic, making the fate of two imagined sisters real. The prose is sprinkled with a “wee” bit of Irish words, like “she’s a quare one for the craic.” “Tis” for you to look up!   

Aidan is the grieving widower in his thirties. Charismatic with his penetrating “dark, blue eyes,” a gentleman wonderfully devoted to his daughter Lily, who inherited his blue eyes but hers are more “wary.” She’s a heartbreaker. At their house near St. Patrick’s Church on Fifth Avenue, there’s also an endearing older housekeeper, a dreadful, jealous young maid, and an intimidating, vengeful father-in-law. Which means there’s pain and control amidst the elegance, parental love, and goodness. What’s also here is the budding sexual chemistry between an employer and his employee. Aidan is someone who doesn’t take kindly to people who don’t tell the truth. His morality sets in motion the ups and downs of a delightful romance. The reader knows he has a tender heart, but has trouble expressing it and is blinded by his righteousness.  

At times this old-fashioned yet highly relevant immigrant novel has a nostalgic feel, for the Old World charm of early New York City and the golden era of cross-country train travel when dining cars had “plush velvet” seats and sleeping cars “silken sheets.” The wonderment and romanticizing of the Old West is here too.  

In the backdrop of the early twentieth century is also the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that put horribly inadequate working conditions in the spotlight , the suffragette movement, and “wildcat” oil fever in Texas, where the author lives.      

A number of other colorful characters play pivotal roles, menacing and benevolent. They’re in the novel’s three settings: Manhattan, upstate New York, and Dallas. Texas is depicted as a “shotgun city” and a lovely place of blue-bonnet wildflowers with the space to breathe and determine one’s destiny.

“Risk takers and rule breakers, dreamers and sinners and independent souls with their own moral code” create a unique, satisfying ride.


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The Rose Code

How three female friendships and WWII codebreaking changed history (Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, England; 1939 to 1947): Kate Quinn has done it again! How does she keep up the pace, writing three big, thrilling historical spy novels every two years?

The Rose Code, her newest, features a different type of spy craft than her earlier two on-the-ground female spy novels (The Huntress and The Alice Network, mini-review incorporated here). Set at Bletchley Park, England’s top-secret codebreaking center governed by the UK’s Official Secrets Act, it first became public in the late 1970s, then opened as a museum in 1994.

Having now read over 1600 pages of Quinn’s three WWII/I novels, I’m confident to say this “life-long history buff” is a master at crafting gutsy female characters in gutsy prose, inspired by real unsung heroines, consistently bringing fascinating, little-known history so alive it’s like watching a thrilling spy movie.

The Rose Code is the longest, clocking in at over 600 pages. Using the word clock applies to three contexts, starting with a plot that’s a race against the clock of war, breaking encrypted German codes (also Italian and Japanese) to save lives and win the war. In a dozen illuminating pages of Author Notes, we learn of the real spies her invented female characters are based on, and of men they worked for and with, some they fell in love with.

Try to wrap your head inside a cryptoanalyst’s mind having to break codes when there’s “150 million million million” possible combinations! Granted, they were aided by three codebreaking machines – Enigma (below left), Typex (below top right), and Bombe (below bottom right) – but much relied on educated guesses, pattern/puzzle solving, and mind-numbing hours, months, and years at it. (Photos via Wikimedia Commons – Enigma: public domain, Typex: by ArnoldReinhold [CC BY-SA 4.0], Bombe: by User Messybeast on en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0].)

The complexity of these machines and codebreaking is excellently described. Still, visualizing may be helpful:

“There are two kinds of flowers when it comes to women. The kind that sit safe in a beautiful vase, or the kind that survive in any condition … even in evil,” is a quote from The Alice Network that establishes Quinn’s mission for all three of her novels to spotlight historic, strong-willed, brave women committed to a “moral purpose.”

Three distinct women from different backgrounds become the unlikeliest of friends when they work at the sprawling “red-brick Victorian with a green roof,” especially at buildings called Huts. Each numbered, each operating like separate silos where no one knew what the other groups were working on. Where “all just see one piece of the puzzle.” Secrecy was paramount, breaking it treasonous.

Bletchley Park Mansion by DeFacto [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Historically, these women stand out as all were civilians whereas most BP women were snatched from Britain’s naval, air, and auxiliary army services. Still in the minority as the majority were men plucked from Oxford and Cambridge universities disciplined in mathematics, physics, linguistics, as well as chess players and WWI codebreakers.

The women’s stories add richly-layered storylines on the pressures of war and love. The author imagines complicated romances, inspired by a real one, offering delicious escapes for the toiling cryptologists and the reader.

Each woman had her own reason for wanting to prove herself. Each a specific skill befitting her assignment:

Mab: secretarial schooling lands her in Hut 6, the Decoding Room, using the Typex machine to “punch coded messages” for translation into German, mostly.

Osla: fluent in German (and other languages), she’s assigned to Hut 4, the Naval Station, where a string of five-letter nonsensical messages are translated into “plain-texts.”

Beth: a crackerjack crossword puzzler finds herself working for fictional and real Dilly Knox, who applied an “Alice-in-Wonderland” creative thinking approach to deciphering jabberwocky sentences.

A bit more about the women’s stories and codebreaking work:

Osla’s flirtatiousness and wit dazzles. She provides another version of the clock theme: a countdown, told in alternating chapters and time periods, that tracks how many days left until the royal wedding in 1947. A date that ended her five-year, mostly long-distance affair told through letters with young, dashing naval lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, cousin of Lord Mountbatten – Osla’s cousin too, which is how they met. When Philip’s distant cousin Lilibeth made it known she wanted to marry him and make him a prince they parted ways. Fictional Canadian socialite Osla sparkles like Philip’s real Osla Benning girlfriend, a Canadian actress who sparkled too.

Osla’s prose is “Mayfair Slang,” from living in London’s swanky Mayfair neighborhood, Knightsbridge. Determined to change her “silly deb” image, she has a sassy “romantic tosh” way of “making a muff of things.” Things get serious in the naval station when her sworn-to-secrecy oath is tested.

Mab comes from London’s East End working-class neighborhood, Shoreditch, so her prose is “East Ender slang” like saying Bletchley Park’s motto is “you dinnae need to know.” Ambitious and independent, she’s determined to make herself into a lady. A shopgirl at London’s luxury department store Selfridges, she represents women “from all walks of life” who had supporting roles as “decoders, filers, and bombe machine operators.” At Hut 6, she meets a quiet, remote poet and codebreaker named Francis Gray based on two real poet codebreakers. Gray turns her story romantic and dangerous. At six foot tall, she’s reassigned to Hut 8, where the famous mathematician Alan Turing invented the taller, ear-splitting bombe machine that streamlined codebreaking exponentially. Turing makes an appearance, but he’s  intentionally kept in the background.

The two women teach Beth what genuine friendship mean. They encourage her to work at Bletchley Park because she solves crossword puzzles as if she designed them. “Brainy” like Dilly Knox, “one of the Park’s eccentric geniuses.” Their minds are in sync, which affects their relationship. Beth shows what a mother ill-equipped can do to lowering a girl’s self-esteem, yet when given a chance to excel does, even better than Peggy Rock, the fictionalized and real mathematician codebreaker. Mastery, though, doesn’t come easy. Beth endures a steep, nine-month, nerve-wracking learning curve that drives her nuts.

Madness at this “blinking madhouse” is another recurring theme since “the burden of secrecy took its toll” and “oddballs” were recruited. It also provides a third version of the ticking clock: another countdown revealed in the opening chapter set in the aftermath of WWII. An anonymous codebreaker has been locked up for more than three years at a fictional sanitarium named Clockwell, symbolic of similar institutions that did exist. You’ll figure out who the tortured soul is but not the Park’s traitor, as the clock races dangerously.

Louise de Bettignies via Wikipedia

Spies on-the-ground are what The Alice Network is based on: a real network of WWI female spies. Here another young, charming, determined socialite, Charlie, gets entangled with a reclusive older woman, Eve, who was a spy in the network. Again, alternating timeframes as the two meet after WWII. Charlie rekindles the spy’s revenge against a Nazi-sympathizer who catered to the Germans for profits, meant to embody “profiteers” who sold out to the Germans. The network was founded by fictional Lili, drawn from the real “Queen of Spies” Louise de Bettignies, a “regular modern day Joan of Arc.”

Like Osla, Charlie shines. So does her romance with Eve’s compassionate Scottish driver as another unlikely trio form a powerful, endearing bond in pursuit of truth and justice driving through France in his beloved British Lagonda convertible. Haunting when they uncover a German massacre in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. France left it untouched. A haunting monument to truth.

Oradour-sur-Glane by Davdavlhu [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

As cyberattacks threaten our nation’s security, The Rose Code and a “haunted city” remind us of the heroism, endurance, and imagination Quinn masterly shows us is still a possible combination that can change history.


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